Halloween in Hell: Hell, Michigan

October 3, 2016 — You need to know that this article was one of the hardest that I’ve ever written. You could almost say that it was…hell…to write. At first, I painstakingly attempted to avoid all the inevitable and terrible hell puns like that one. I wrote it completely straightforward, taking the high road like someone literally trying to escape from Hell. But after reading that draft, it still felt like I was punning every other line, and doing it weakly to boot. To avoid that, I’d either have to write the whole thing without putting any preposition in front of the name of this oddity or go all in on the puns. So I’ve gone all in. Because I love prepositions that much. May god have mercy on my soul.

So we went to Hell…Michigan. You should go to Hell, too.

I had two big misconceptions about Hell. The first was that it was an actual town. It’s not. It’s a subdivision of sorts. A small area of a town called Pinckney…which is not as easy a town to create T-shirts for: “On a Highway to Pinckney.” See?

The community started when a guy named George Reeves built a couple of mills, a brewery, and a tavern in the same spot. He figured that if you can make a place where a man can earn a living and then drink that living away, you’ve got it made. I mean [in a whisper] that is all we ever wanted. How the area got the name is unknown. Wikipedia cites a few possibilities.

One completely unbelievable story is that a couple of German travelers disembarked there and commented, “So schon hell,” which means “very bright,” or something innocuous like that. Locals heard that third word and were like, “These Germs are right. This place is Hell.” Another rumor can be chalked up to George Reeves himself who, in response to somebody asking what he should call his handful of buildings, purportedly said, “You can name it Hell for all I care.” Then there’s the usual story that the area kind of sucked, like all wilderness does (humans aren’t made for the outdoors), and like Hell itself sucks. So they named it Hell. I buy this story. “This place is Hell,” says one guy, slapping at a mosquito while a bear gnaws at his leg. “Dude,” says the other who is slowly succumbing to exposure while he blissfully drinks his living away, “Let’s start calling it that.”

Whoever named it, whyever they did so, by the end of 1841, the name had stuck like a bat doesn’t stick to Hell. Today, Hell is a mere clutch of three buildings—two restaurants and a gift shop—and a creek called Hell Creek.

But it’s still a pretty cool place. You know. For Hell.

Let’s start with where the hell is Hell: About 20 miles northwest of Ann Arbor. So in the southern portion of the state, a portion we just happened to be passing through on our Great Lakes road trip. And there was no way in Hell I was going to pass up the chance to play Dante in the Midwest. I’m not sure who would play the Michigan Virgil in that scenario. Maybe Alice Cooper. Or Tim Allen. No wait. Madonna. Definitely Madonna.

Driving through Hell was when my first misconception about it being a town was corrected. Quickly thereafter, my second one was corrected, as well. What I found, when I pulled into that dusty parking lot on that late July day wasn’t a whole lot of fiery lakes and horny demons. Sure, I found that, but it was the minority. The place wasn’t so much Hell-themed as it was Halloween-themed. Just the entrance sign with its cobwebs and spooky eyes and stock Halloween font and zombie hands told us that. Also its use of the word, “Hell-O-ween.”

The restaurant on one side of the parking lot was called the Hell Hole Bar. A sign on its roof advertised “fresh pasties.” Those aren’t what you’re thinking they are, nor are they pronounced the way you’re thinking they are…which is something my wife learned red-faced at a previous Michigan restaurant. Pronounced with a soft “a,” pasties are basically meat pies. And they’re served in Hell.

In the past, the Hell Hole Bar was a general store from which you could send people “Greetings from Hell” postcards. I have one on the shelf in my study that a friend who beat me there a ways back sent me. Today, you can still do that, but you’ll do that surrounded by tourists ordering those things that strippers wear and wondering why the servers are looking at them funny.

The side of the restaurant is painted orange and purple, with a witch, a skeleton, and a demon each painted into purple window frames. A sign in a Halloween font directs people to the “batrooms.” Behind the restaurant is a large shed with a plywood jack-o-lantern facade.

The other restaurant is a few hundred feet down the road, the Hell Saloon. We didn’t check this place out. The two dozen motorcycles in front of it kind of dissuaded us, even though the website advertises it as “family and biker-friendly.” It’s just a wide net that I didn’t want to be caught up in despite the fact that the one time I accidentally took my family to a biker bar, it turned out to be a fine enough experience. I’ll have to tell you that story at some point.

We spent most of our time in Hell at the building between these two restaurants, on the other side of the parking lot from the Hell Hole Bar: Screams from Hell. A pumpkin-shaped sign on the front of the building advertised “Halloween N Hell Stuf!” The point in the exclamation mark was an eyeball.

Inside, it was basically a Halloween store. Sure, you could by a “Beer in Hell is Safer than Water in Flint” T-shirt, but it was mostly filled with dangly skeletons and masks and candy. It also served ice cream. Because Pat Benatar was right that Hell is for children.

I bought my kids some, and the guy behind the counter gave me a two-dollar bill for change. It had been stamped in red with the phrase, “I’ve been thru Hell, Michigan.” I did not ask him if it was better to serve in Hell.

We took our ice cream around back, under a gate that said, natch, “Gates of Hell,” to a small putt-putt course and some wooden cut-outs of a witch on a broom and a demon. A shed-sized chapel on the grounds was so that people could get married in Hell.

As I gazed across Hell, it kind of all felt like an attraction past its prime, or maybe one that was just biding its time until October. Certainly the sweltering late July day was more Hell than Halloween. But it made sense that this is what Halloween in Hell felt like.

So I’ve been to Hell. And I wouldn’t mind going back. Maybe in winter. When Hell freezes over.